First Published: 2015-05-29

Merryland Park: A missed symbol of liberal Egypt
Park offered respite from Cairo's dusty, traffic-choked cacophony.
Middle East Online

Merryland Park in 1963

It was a symbol of a more liberal Egypt where young Muslims and Christians mingled under its leafy canopies, bands played and a young Omar Sharif wooed the glamorous Faten Hamama in the classic film romance "The River of Love".

A rare oasis in a metropolis home to eight million people, Merryland park offered respite from Cairo's dusty, traffic-choked cacophony.

Families sipped lemonade on its terraces and paddle-boated on its lake.

"Merryland was a vent for eastern Cairo," said Magdy Badr al-Din, whose balcony overlooks the park.

But for the former civil servant and his neighbours, that storied heyday, and the more tolerant times that went with it, are just a memory and now the park is run down, a victim of Egypt's myriad political upheavals.

Now developers have moved in to build a car park on part of the gardens, and many of its rare trees, imported from around the world, have been uprooted, causing consternation in the surrounding upscale Heliopolis neighbourhood.

Campaigners obtained a court order against the development but as arguments drag on, the park has been closed to the public and all efforts to rejuvenate its gardens remain on hold.

Merryland was the brainchild of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who came to power after a military coup in 1952 that ended the monarchy and modernised the country.

Nasser returned from a trip to the United States and decided that Cairo should take its place among the great cities of the world by having a park worthy of its size.

The 50-acre Merryland park was inaugurated in 1963, an event Iman Farrag, a social scientist, still remembers. Her father took her there as a child.

"It was a place where people mixed," she said.

- Bands and belly dancers -

The park became a cultural mainstay in the capital, fittingly for a city that had become the cinematic and musical capital of the Arab world.

Saleh Abdel Magid, a retired army general, married in the park in 1978.

"I just held the ceremony in Merryland. There was a band playing, and one of the most famous belly dancers, Suhair Zaky, would dance there weekly," he said.

Young men and women, Muslims and Christians, mixed in contrast to the increased Islamic conservatism seen since the 1980s, Farrag said.

"Boys and girls would hang out, and the girls didn't wear hijabs. Alcohol was served, and it was hard to tell Muslims and Christians apart."

But Cairo's incessant expansion squeezed Heliopolis on all sides. Tall apartment blocks now loom overhead, and above them hangs the ever present smog.

The country itself has faded in the region, no longer the cultural and political beacon it was under Nasser, while the religious and class divides he tried to dispel have grown.

Many Muslim women have adopted the hijab, and many Christians have begun sporting small crucifix tattoos on their wrists.

The park was built on the site of a hippodrome, where Arabian horses rumbled around a track before an excited crowd.

The stands where Egyptian royalty watched the races have been preserved, a lone reminder of an age before the military took power.

The racetrack itself had been part of Egypt's cultural heritage, featuring in memorable films including "The River of Love" in 1960 -- one of he greatest Egyptian screen love stories -- starring Sharif and Hamama, his former wife, herself an icon of Arab cinema.

Scenes from "The Empty Pillow", starring the "Sinatra of the Nile" Abdel Halim Hafez, were also shot there.

- 'Unacceptable state' -

Now the park is in ruins and closed to visitors. A small building that served as a restaurant is covered in grime.

The pond, once alive with children in small rowboats and swans, is empty.

Asma al-Halujy, a conservationist, said 38 trees had been destroyed, some more than 60 years old.

The Heliopolis Company for Housing and Construction, which oversees the park, plans to move some of the trees to make way for cars.

"The traffic department asked us to create a parking space as a condition for renovating the park and setting up new cafes and restaurants," said its head Ali Mostafa.

The neighbourhood's residents, especially those who grew up during Merryland's heyday, organised a campaign to save the green space, forcing a halt to the work.

Its fate could lie in the hands of Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab who is expected to make a decision on whether to nationalise the park.

"The state Merryland has reached over the past decade is unacceptable," Environment Minister Khaled Fahmy said.

"We need to develop it in a way that preserves it beauty."

 

Macron faces rights test on Sisi’s visit to Paris

Iran recruits Afghan Shiites to defend Syria regime

Main Saudi sovereign wealth fund projects to boost jobs by 2020

Abadi challenges Tillerson on Iran militia remarks

In Morocco’s imperial city of Fez, magic fills the air

Israel bans sale of binary options

Fierce clashes between IS, paramilitary coalition near Mosul

Saudi Aramco chief says lack of investment could lower supplies

EU promises Sudan aid for ‘as long as it takes’

Baghdad-Erbil showdown generates new dangers for Iraq

UNICEF says 1,100 children malnourished in Syria’s Ghouta

IS ‘executed’ 116 suspected of Syria regime collaboration

UN says Yemen children in desperate need of aid

Orthodox Jews block Jerusalem entrance in protest

Six terror suspects arrested in Morocco

EU announces 106 million euros in aid for Sudan

French judges to rule on whether 'Jihad' is acceptable name

Saudi Aramco chief confirms IPO despite doubts

Lack of accountability hinders governing in Morocco, analysts say

Sudan editor convicted after Bashirs accused of graft

Russia’s Lavrov urges Iraq-Kurd dialogue

Iraq dismisses US call for Iranian-backed militias to 'go home'

Kurds to arrest 11 Iraqis in response to similar Baghdad move

Car bomb attack kills 9 in south Yemen military base

Rouhani boasts about Iran’s greatness in region

Iraq unrest highlights long-standing political divisions

Bahrain temporarily frees female activist

Israel arrests 51 Palestinians for ‘terror-related’ crimes

Egypt court sentences 11 people to death for 'terrorism'

Israel police arrest 15 over anti Jewish-Arab dating campaign

Tillerson woos Gulf allies to curb Iran influence

Opposition calls on Iraqi Kurd leader to step down

Abadi, Sadr meet in Jordan

No clear US strategy in Syria after Raqqa liberation

Tillerson pushes to undercut Iran at landmark Saudi, Iraq meeting

Greening the Camps brings food and hope to refugees

Gulf share values plummet

US-backed forces capture key Syria oil field

More than half of Austrians vote for anti-immigration party

Washington sees potential Hezbollah threat in the US

UN ends Libya talks with no progress made

Cairo killing sparks security concerns among Copts

Iraq PM arrives in Saudi to upgrade ties

35 Egyptian police killed in Islamist ambush

Morocco recalls Algeria envoy over 'hashish money' jibe